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My Original Passion for the Bible

I have been talking about the areas of New Testament studies that were emphasized in my Masters and PhD programs at Princeton Theological Seminary, back in the late 70s and early to mid 80s.  It was a long program, even though I sped through it a couple of years faster than most of my colleagues.  The Masters program was three years (that is typical for a masters of divinity degree); my PhD was four years (most of my friends took five to seven).   That’s full time work, for all those seven years.   It’s a lot!

Most of the training that most of my friends/colleagues had was in New Testament exegesis and theology, as I’ve described.  My passions lay elsewhere, and my plan is to talk a little about them.  But it just occurred to me this morning that my *original* interest in the New Testament was in fact exegesis and theology, even though I would not have used those terms for it.

I had been mildly interested in the Bible even as a child.  Very mildly.  OK, very, very mildly.  I found the stories interesting, but I never read it.  I was a church kid, but in the Episcopal Church the Bible was not a huge focus of study.   When I was fifteen and had a “born again” experience, the Bible suddenly became very important for me.  That’s because the man who “led me to Christ,” as we used to say, was extremely committed to the Bible and saw it as the key to what to believe, what to think, how to act, how to be in the world, how to exist.  For him it was flippin’ *everything*.  And since he became my spiritual leader, I followed his lead.

Looking back on it, it is a little strange that I thought I had been “led to Christ.”  Where was I before?  True, I was not…

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Beginning My Study of the Bible
Different Ways of Describing the Theology of the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    JoeBTex  August 24, 2016

    Maybe this is off topic, but just felt compelled to mention that I am reading Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician” which includes your Foreward. It is an excellent companion to your work and in many ways completes the circle. Thank you for your continuing work to enlighten. Grateful that you didn’t stop at Philippians 1:21. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 24, 2016

    As always, your more personal blogs are your best ones. Thanks for sharing this which sounds much like my own teenage experience. Studying the Bible “seriously” and “historically” changes everything.

    Since Doctors Without Borders is supported by this blog, readers might be interested in reading an article on today’s NPR website about Sudan. It is entitled “Five Days and Five Nights with Doctors Without Borders.” The article starts slowly, but is quite powerful toward the end.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 24, 2016

    This reminds me of a joke I once heard from an Episcopal Bishop. It goes something like this: A Presbyterian pastor and his assistant are at an ecumenical conference, and the pastor is pointing out the different denominations to his assistant. “Over there,” he says, “are the Baptists. They have a low theology, but high morals. And over there are the Catholics. They have a high theology, but low morals. And over there are the Episcopalians. They have a low theology AND low morals, but aren’t they well-dressed?”

  4. Avatar
    jhague  August 24, 2016

    My experience was similar. I was at the church building every time the doors were open from the time I was born. My family did not miss anything at church. We searched for our brand of church when we were on vacation so that we would not miss a service. Church attendance and Bible knowledge (as the church brand believed) was greatly emphasized. I was involved in everything. Our church did not baptize infants. Baptism was for those who understood what they were doing. So I was baptized when I was in elementary school (as were most kids). I had a great understanding! lol Once baptized, I could now partake of the communion. This was not allowed until a person was baptized. I could also serve publicly by reading scripture, passing communion and offering trays, etc. When I was young, we were told we only needed to read the Bible and we should not read commentary books on the Bible. When I was a little older, we were told we could read commentary books but only if written by members of our church brand. If anyone came to a conclusion that differed from the church brand, they were taken to a room and “taught the truth.” If they did not agree to the truth, they could no longer serve publicly during a church service. If someone had become a member and then stopped attending for a certain number of services (and they still lived in the area) they were disfellowshipped from the church. I started coming out of this way of thinking in my 20’s and it took until I was in my 40’s to completely break away from this type of thinking.

  5. Avatar
    James Chalmers  August 24, 2016

    I assume that Bart Ehrman today when he reads the books of the New Testament sees large discrepancies between them–Matthew lawful and more Judaic, Luke “unorthodox” on atonement, John opposed to the eschatology of the synoptics, etc. etc. Ehrman’s thing today, as I get it, centers on the variousness of early Christianity, a variousness that starts right in the New Testament.

    My question is about the precocious sixteen;year-old Ehrman, Did he too see this variousness (which opens up the possibility of inconsistency)? Or did it all as he read it cohere, seem of a piece, convey one doctrinally comprehensive and orthodox and uniform message? And if it did, how does today’s Ehrman think young Ehrman managed to overlook all those obvious discrepancies?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      No, that Bart Ehrman didn’t see it at all. And never did until his third year in his Masters Program! You don’t notice these things until they are pointed out (and stressed) to you. I think I’ll add this question to the Readers’ Mailbag.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 25, 2016

        How many years were you in school all together?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2016

          Well, I’ve never left school since I was four! College: 5 years; Masters degree: 3 years; PhD: 4 Years. Teaching in a University: 32 years!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 24, 2016

    I find it so hard to understand a childhood like yours! I remember we had a book in the house called “Bible History.” I read it, enjoyed the stories (Old Testament stuff), but never asked anyone how this “Bible History” differed from or was related to other kinds of history.

    I attended a (horrific) Catholic school. And I remember being puzzled by something. I understood why children went to church: because adults were forcing us to. But I *couldn’t* understand why *adults* went to church, when *no one* was forcing them! (I guess at some point, I learned that they went to Mass on Sunday because it was a “mortal sin” not to.)

  7. Avatar
    rburos  August 24, 2016

    Take as long as you wish on this thread.

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 24, 2016

    My “born again” experience was at age 11 or 12 when I listened to all the Sunday morning religious programming (in the early 1960s) on my AM transistor radio that I bought with my potato-picking money. … The “Voice of Prophesy” alluded to the possibility of imminent and eternal hell fire for me if I didn’t accept Jesus as my Savior. I soon got on my knees in my little bedroom. I already knew I was mortal, and could get struck down by a potato truck the next day! … My parents, who I wouldn’t have traded for anyone, were not church goers. My father used Sunday morning as part of a “day of rest” — from what I suspect was a hangover. … Although I was a good reader, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the Bible my grandmother had given me at age 9. There was somewhat scary stuff in it! … Today, thanks very much to Bart (after having lapsed as a Christian for many years) I’ve figured a lot of it out, at age 66!

  9. Avatar
    Junto  August 24, 2016

    Thanks for sharing Bart. My initial interest came about when, as a believing Protestant, I became engaged to a catholic girl and wanted to understand the difference between the faiths. Somehow that lead to reading a book written by a practicing Jew who claimed Jesus wasn’t the messiah because he didn’t fulfill the prophesies. So, I research that and determined he was correct. I became a private Noahide for a while but then soon found that the OT had its own host of internal problems. Then I became an athiest for a while. Believe me, these were difficult times. Actually, traumatic. 15 years later I’ve come back around to believing in God but not the God of the bible. It’s fair to say I believe in a God of my invention, that is, I pick and choose from Various holy texts what makes sense to me. Try disproving that God! Lol.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  August 26, 2016

      As they say, there are about 7 billion religions in the world, a lot of them similar, none of them identical.

  10. Avatar
    Karol Dziwior  August 24, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,

    What is the scholarly view on this subject: did Jesus himself, his movement and then early Christians walk around with weapons (swords, e.g.) to protect themselves, despite preaching the love for enemies? Do we have any historical evidence of how things looked like in this matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      Different opinions on that! I’ll add teh question to the Readers’ Mailbag.

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 24, 2016

    Some Christians think There are “super Christians ” . When a person believes in Christ And born again the holy sprint comes into their life . But one can become a “super Christian ” by the laying upon of hands and having the holy spirt come “upon” the person .Acts 19:6
    And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

    Did you ever want to speak in tongues?
    That was a big deal in Acts.

  12. Avatar
    PamandZiggy  August 24, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman: I have read your experience as a boy and young man before. I have read many of your books. I never realized that you had come to the conclusion that the Bible says that Jesus is God, before I read “How Jesus Became God.” When I first picked it up, I was confident that you would expose all of the common, popular arguments for the fallacy that “Jesus is God.” I was stunned. Couldn’t believe my eyes. What you wrote about scriptural proofs that Jesus is God were the same lame arguments that people with a surface knowledge of the Bible set forth! I was so disappointed (because you were held by me in very high esteem) that I couldn’t put your book back on the shelf, but it is now helping to prop up one of my bookcases.

    John 1:1……John was saying that Jesus was God even though there is no article before “god” in the phrase “and the word was god”? Your reasoning there, in a recent email to me, was so odd that I couldn’t understand it. Why does the fact that there was no article there mean nothing? Surely “THE” god is different from [no article] god.

    Philippians 2:6……The sloppy translation of the KJV is so evidently unconvincing that, I thought, surely you would point out its problems. But no…you upheld the terrible rendering! You didn’t explain “harpagmos” (or “harpazo” or “harpage”) or any of the forms of the Greek word, which always means obtaining something that someone didn’t have before. As Jason BeDuhn says in his book, “Truth in Translation,” “There is not a single word derived from ‘harpazo’ that is used to suggest holding on to something already possessed.” It is always associated with SEIZING something, or PLUNDERING.

    There were quite a few more examples of your caving in to the run-of-the-mill theology, but I’ll conclude with the most ridiculous and most obvious shredding of the translation of Greek into English:

    John 8:58……How is “ego eimi” usually translated? Remembering that Greek and English have different rules, and “ego eimi” is rendered in thousands of verses according to that understanding, BeDuhn says that “on the matter of word order, normal English follows the structure we all learned in elementary school: subject + verb + object or predicate phrase. The order of the Greek in John 8:58 is: predicate phrase + subject + verb. So it is the most basic step of translation to move the predicate phrase ‘before Abraham came to be’ (prin Abraam genesthai) from the beginning of the sentence to the end, after the subject and verb. Just as we do not say ‘John I am’ or ‘Hungry I am’ or ‘First in line I am,’ so it is not proper English to say ‘Before Abraham came to be I am.’ Yet all of the translations we are comparing [KJV, NRSV, NASB, NIV, TEV, AB, NAB], with the exception of the LB, offer precisely this sort of MANGLED WORD ORDER.” He goes on to explain in detail how it should be translated, and it is: “I was in existence before Abraham was ever born,” or words to that effect. I couldn’t believe you went along with that “ungrammatical and syntactically strained” translation!

    All of my trinitarian acquaintances laughed at me for thinking that you said that Jesus could not be God because of the absence of the article in John 1:1 (in your book, “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” p.113, which I read years ago, before “How Jesus Became God”). Their taunting didn’t bother me. What bothers me is that my respect for you as a Bible scholar has gone right out the window, and I’m asking to be deleted from this website.

    Pam McCarty

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      The Bible definitely says Jesus is God. That doesn’t mean that he *is* God though. And different biblical authors mean (very) different things when they think he is God. I’m sorry to make you sad!

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 25, 2016

        Is that the same man who attaches a Marcion-type theology when he rewords the text? I haven’t read his book, but I saw where he went to Harvard Divinity. Is this a matter of difference of opinion on how the text should read?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2016

          Sorry — I’m not sure whom you’re referring to.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  August 26, 2016

            I was referring to BeDuhn. Sorry, I thought that when you answered comments, you could see the comment before mine.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2016

            No, I’m afraid I can only see the comments in isolation, not as part of a thread. BeDuhn did write a very fine book on Marcion’s text of the Gospel of Luke.

          • Avatar
            Rogers  August 27, 2016

            The reference is in respect to the scholar Jason BeDuhn “Truth in Translation”, a 2003 publication

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  August 26, 2016

        Would you say Paul thought Jesus was God?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2016

          He certainly did. (See Philippians 2:6-11) I discuss the matter at some length in my book How Jesus Became God.

          • Avatar
            dragonfly  August 27, 2016

            It’s been a while since I read how Jesus became God, I should probably read it again. I know you said Paul thought Jesus was an angel before coming to earth as a human. Phil 6 says he was in the form of God before becoming a human. Can an angel be in the form of God? Maybe Paul had a different sense of God and angels that I’m not able to understand.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 28, 2016

            Yes, in some Jewish circles angels were indeed int he form of God (that’s one of the reasons they are sometimes called sons of God)

  13. Avatar
    PamandZiggy  August 24, 2016

    Who is the decision-maker as to what Dr. Ehrman can see? I ask you, Please let him read my comment. It will give me a sense of closure to my emotional trauma over this. I have admired Bart Ehrman for many years.

  14. Avatar
    Jason  August 24, 2016

    Do you encounter evangelicals who act on the idea that you were still never a “real” Christian so they can prosthelitize to you without wasting their time (in view of Heb. 6:4?)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2016

      Ha! I’ve never heard someone appeal to Hebrew 6:4, but I’ve certainly had lots of evangelicals tell me I must not have ever been a real Christian (they can’t imagine anyone *leaving* something so good.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 27, 2016

        The Southern Baptists I went to church with as a child had a saying, “Once saved, always saved.” That meant that, once someone had been born again/asked Jesus into her life, that nothing one could do, say, or think would nullify that. They had bible verses to back that up, of course. There was a workaround, though, for the total apostates — people I suspect they secretly wanted to go to hell. You might think you had been saved, but you hadn’t done it right. It’s such a damnable religion, in my opinion. They convince young people that they have some flaw for which God is willing to torture them eternally, but that he will excuse them if they just do one simple thing — but they might possibly do it wrong, thinking they have escaped damnation, only to find out too late that they got it wrong.

  15. Avatar
    tcasto  August 24, 2016

    Maybe because I began my critical reading of the bible much later than you, but I never got beyond a feeling of incredulity that people could read the words and actually think they could derive the meaning. I never bought into the notion that you had to believe in order to understand. It wasn’t until I began accessing your research on the development of the bible that I understood how such a flawed work could come into being.

    I will say that, with the knowledge I’ve gained from you and other biblical historians, I have become much more formidable in discussions with my believing friends. To the point where they no longer attempt to convert me, save me, or convince me I’m on the road to perdition.

  16. Terianne
    Terianne  August 25, 2016

    sounds like a journey to me … looking forward to more posts

  17. Avatar
    HawksJ  August 26, 2016

    So, did you leave your parent’s church at the age of 15? If so, how did that sit with them?

    Ever since I first heard you tell your ‘faith journey’ (at the beginning of one of your books – ‘Misquoting Jesus’, perhaps?), I’ve always been extremely curious how that journey impacted your family, particularly your mother.

    I grew up in a church where it was implied, often not so subtly, that they alone were Christ’s true church and membership therein was the only path to salvation. In such a climate, ‘faith journeys’ such as your’s (not only as a teenager, but as an adult), would have caused a core-reactor meltdown in some families (including mine).

    I would love to hear more about that and how you managed that process, relationship-wise.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2016

      I stayed in that church until I went off to college; I then started attending another one and my parents eventually started coming to that one too. My falling out with my parents religiously was only later, when I started becoming “liberal.”

  18. Avatar
    tracieayn  August 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I too grew up in the Episcopal Church, in…wait for it…your favorite debating locale, Florence, AL. I also graduated from UNA. As an Episcopalian amongst the throngs of people attending the Church of Christ or Southern Baptist church (as my grandparents did), I was constantly aware of the view that my family were considered not to be “real” Christians. We also attended church regularly. But for my grandparents, none of that mattered and any time I visited their Southern Baptist church there was great anticipation. Is this the day she’ll go down front and give her life to Jesus! That never happened, but I did fall in with a group of very religious girls in high school and at 16 also had a “conversion” experience. I delved into the Bible and realized all the errors of my ways and harangued my family about their sins. Fortunately, this phase did not stick mainly because it was no fun! And many decades later I now find myself agnostic. My question is…finally…do you feel any resentment towards the man who made you feel the faith you had via your Episcopal church was less than? I definitely feel some resentment towards those in my hometown that did that to me and my family and other non-fundamentalist families. Who do they think they are to judge someone else’s faith. Anyway, long way around to that question. Thanks, enjoy your blog very much.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2016

      Yes, I’m afraid I do feel a good bit of resentment toward him….

  19. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  August 29, 2016

    I would argue with Christians through my college and graduate years ( 1965-1977) and I could be sarcastic and snide. Oy. After failing to get a teaching job with only an MA in philosophy, I went to work in a redwood mill. Most of the guys talked about things that bored me–sports, hunting, fishing, cars, getting drunk, and all the “ass” they allegedly got last night or would get this weekend. Ironically, I was drawn to the young Christian men there because, despite the huge theological differences between us, at least they were interested in what it meant to be a good person, a good husband and a good father. I argued with them some but then realized I’d been arguing all those years without having read the Bible! So I read it when I was 35 years old. Then I picked up the book a Presbyterian minister had recommended to me in 1967–Joseph Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching. After some self-pity, I grew to value my years in the mill because it was there I got a more intimate look into the beliefs and lives of believers-on-the-street that I never would have received had I been teaching all those years. I was fascinated by Bill Moyer’s Conversation on Genesis on PBS. I read Schweitzer’s book, about five histories of the Jews, Brandon’s The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming, Michael Grant’s A Historian’s Review of the Gospels, and Spong, Pagels, Crossan, etc until I found your work. These are fascinating journeys–yours as a scholar, mine and those of other members here as lay students of scholars’ works for lay people. Thanks so much for your blog, trade books, your Great Courses courses, lectures, and debates.

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